Other 17th Century Religious Groups

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or 'The magistrate is not by virtue of his office to meddle with religion or matters of conscience' (John Smyth, Baptist)

Part 7 of a series on religion in the Civil Wars by Simon Frame


Unfortunately, a rather elusive group, who practiced naturism (nudism) in an attempt to recapture mankind's'# innocence, lost when Adam and Eve were driven from Eden. A contemporary woodcut shows them wearing boots and carrying whips, although this is probably a product of the artist’s fevered imagination. The 1646 Catalogue of the severall Sects and Opinions in England and other Nations describes them as 'in secret dare Aparent sinfull acts to spread' - note the use of the word ‘ aparent’ [sic]. Not too popular outdoors in mini-ice age mid C17th England, I suspect.


A radical 'left-wing' movement, more prominent in the C16th Protestant Reformation. Their opposition to a hierarchical church and anything which separated laymen from the ordained, egalitarianism and oath taking led to the usual oppression by both Protestant and Catholic governments. They repudiated childhood baptism as a blasphemous formality because it was not clearly foreseen in the New Testament and saw adult baptism (merely an outward sign of inner experience) as the only true baptism because infants could not be punishable for sin until they had developed an awareness of good and evil. For this reason they were called Anabaptists because they were said to practice a second baptism. The name was also used by more orthodox reformers, particularly on the continent, to describe any radical sects. Anabaptists believed that the church should be separated from the state and therefore from the Anglican church, proposing a form of congregationalism made up of converts who had undergone believer’s baptism . Most Anabaptists were opposed to the use of violence, even when used to maintain social order. Being endowed with the spirit of God and using it to benefit others by becoming a so-called 'mechanic' preacher was more important than an academic education and theology. In the C16th, and less so in the C17th, some Anabaptists practised communal property and polygamy (in accordance with the Old Testaments), but these issues were levelled against all Anabaptists and radicals by their opponents.


As an English denomination, they originated within C17th 'Puritanism' as an offshoot of Congregationalism, with some possible Anabaptist influence. Baptist churches were composed of those who had voluntarily joined (the gathered church), as opposed to the members of a state church, who are automatically members of their geographically convenient church after receiving the sacraments (1).

Two English congregationalist separatists, Thomas Helwys and John Smyth, founded the first Baptist church in Amsterdam in 1609. Smyth had found no evidence for infant baptism in the New Testament and published his views in 'The Nature Of The Beast' (1609) and baptised himself and 36 others. Smyth subsequently became aware of an Anabaptist community in Amsterdam and questioned his self-baptism which he felt should have been performed by a true church, so he proposed a union with the Anabaptists. The others objected so he left and joined the Mennonites, and Helwys returned to England and in 1611/12 formed a Baptist church at Spitalfields near London. Eventually, they split (c. 1638) to form the General Baptists (who believed Christ died for all - universal redemption, like Arminians), whose popularity grew during the Civil War, but declined when many defected to the Quakers. The others, led by John Spilsbury, became the more popular Particular Baptists, based upon a non-separatist church at Southwark established in 1616 by Henry Jacob. The Particular Baptists (Christ died for a select few i.e. like Calvin’s elect), were essentially non-separatist Independents that believed that churches should be self-governing bodies comprised of believers only, and sought to maintain links with other Christian groups and did not break completely from the Anglican church or condemn it completely.

Baptists adopted adult baptism as a public confession of faith, when you were mature enough to make a conscious decision to join the church, and used total immersion, based upon Jesus's baptism by John. They advocated a return to a more primitive church without the influence of the state church and the monarch at its head, Christ being the true head of the church.

They believed that the Bible was the true authority and model for your life, and was not to be interpreted by an organised church as religion was a personal thing. Similarly, there was no distinction between priests and the laity: all believers were priests. The congregation could appoint and sack its own clergy and no secular or spiritual organisation was allowed to interfere with a Baptist congregation’s practices. Some Baptist groups did co-operate in the 1650's, such as Richard Baxter's Worcestershire Association which included Independents, episcopalians, and 'men of no faction nor siding with any party'. Communion was received in the pews, and services were based upon the use of the scriptures in the sermon, rather than set prayers and hymns.

In the mid C17th the Baptists seemed to split over the legality of church tithes, which were fundamental to the Anglican church.


Followers of the English separatist, Robert Browne, who lived from c. 1550 to 1633. He laid down some of the earliest congregationalist principles and formed his own congregationalist church in Norwich in 1580, emigrating with followers to Middleburg in Holland the next year after repeated conflicts with the law. One of the main sources of contention with the Church of England was that Browne wanted the church members to have a say in who instructed them, in order to ensure that the church elders were chosen from amongst the elect. Browne published 'Reformation without Tarying for Anie' in 1582, and went to Scotland in 1583 where he preached against Presbyterianism. He returned to England the next year and was jailed, but became reconciled with the Anglican Church in which he was Rector of Achurch, Northants. He died in jail, after being imprisoned at the age of 83 for the more mundane reason of attacking a constable.

Brownists were described by Lilburne as 'the base and obscure fellows of the world'. Don't know why.


Agrarian Communists who were led by Gerrard Winstanley and William Everard. Winstanley had deduced the following:

  • The concepts of good and evil were within man whilst he was alive, and weren't only relevant after death or in heaven or hell.
  • It followed from this that if you could overcome the evil within yourself, then you could become one with Christ.
  • If Christ dwelt within everyone, there could be no original sin.

This is broadly in line with the antinomian beliefs , supporting his rejection of authority. Winstanley, like Milton, harked back to an idealised age before the Norman conquest when the law was available to all and Englishmen didn’t labour under the Norman yoke. In April 1649 a group of poor people began to cultivate common land at St. George's Hill near Kingston and at Cobham Manor nearby with the belief that, as Charles Stuart had been executed and the landowners defeated, all land should be available to the poor to cultivate. Local landowners were incensed and the Diggers were the subject of legal and mob harassment. In March 1650 their commune was dispersed. Winstanley was pragmatic enough to support the Rump parliament as a lesser evil than the restoration. The Diggers were anti-violence and called themselves 'True Levellers' but the Levellers denounced their communism.


C17th pseudo-hippies, also known as the 'Family of Love', followers of the C16th Dutch merchant Hendrik Niclaes who taught a commune and co-operative lifestyle with some antinomianism, anti-trinitarianism and pantheism thrown in for good measure, although Niclaes never left the Catholic church. There was some Anabaptist influence but they did not have specific credal statements or sacraments, and instead opted for a 'mystical unity' amongst believers. Niclaes' business ventures took him to London where he set up new groups and published 'A Joyfyl Message of the Kingdom', which invited all 'lovers of truth of what nation and religion soever they be Christian, Jews, Mahomites or Turks and heathen' to join the Family of Love as long as they gave up all dogma and wished to be incorporated into the body of Christ. The English groups became the largest group and most ardent followers. In 1580 Elizabeth I condemned their teachings and tried to suppress them, but they were still vexing James I who declared them to be the root of puritanism.

In the C16th they married and divorced via a simple declaration made before the congregation, anticipating the 1653 act in England which rendered marriage a civil ceremony. They believed in universal salvation. In mid C17th England they would have been very few and far between, although their works were reprinted during the Commonwealth.


The 'Fifth Monarchy' would be the personal reign of Christ on earth, following from the Byzantine, Persian, Greek and Roman empires, as stated in Daniel vii and Rev 20:1-5. or as interpreted by some in Britain, the Angevins, Plantagents, Tudors and Stuarts. The Fifth Monarchists were basically extreme millenarians who wanted to use force (and tried) to establish the millennium and who had worked out a sophisticated governmental structure2 until Christ's new order could be established. Fifth Monarchists were still bogeymen in Pepys's time.


In 1950's America paranoia centred around 'Reds under the bed'; in England from the 1620's onwards Jesuits filled the same bogeyman role. They were founded in 1534 by the soldier (to become a Saint) Ignatius of Loyola, who thought up the idea whilst recovering from wounds. The original plan was to undertake a pilgrimage to the Holy Land to convert the Muslims but when this was not possible due to war with the Ottoman Turks, he decided that they should spread the Catholic church by preaching and education, and undertake anything else which was required to protect or expand the church, hence their motto 'Ad majorem Dei gloriam'3. Pope Paul III recognised them in 1540 and they agreed to go wherever the Pope should send them. The Jesuits undertook a much longer training than other priesthoods, including a full review of classical and science subjects. Jesuits played a leading part in the Catholic counter reformation and were leaders in education, having 500 colleges by 1640. Converting the wealthy and powerful was a chief preoccupation, and Protestants in 1630's and 40's England were concerned that many of Henrietta Maria's foreign visitors at court could be Jesuits (such as Con and Panzini) looking for nobility and princes to convert. For instance, the Grand Remonstrance debated by Parliament in November 1641 attributed many of the problems of Charles Stuart's reign to activities controlled by 'Jesuited Papists'. Even Prynne lost his head about them and declared the Army Debates of 1647-8, Charles's execution and Pride's Purge 'nothing else but the designs and projects of Jesuits, Popish priests and recusants'. One of their means of spreading the faith was via plays, which were as elaborate and well performed as seen on any stage in the C17th. The Jesuits also revived the veneration of relics, processions and pilgrimages.


The Jews were officially expelled from England in 1290. Their activities during the ECW are relatively quiet, but they emerge again during the Commonwealth when there was renewed historical and intellectual interest, and many 'Puritans', including Hugh Peter, held Jews in some regard and wanted toleration for them, and saw their readmission to England as an important step forward in their conversion (one of the Millennarian events leading to the Rule of the Saints).

Some even envisaged the retaking of the Holy Land, and the Ranter John Robins trained his followers for just such a task by dieting on vegetables, dry bread and water.

When the Jews were expelled from Spain at the end of the C15th, many had arrived in England, disguised as Spaniards, and were known as 'Marranos', even visiting Catholic masses at Ambassadors’ residences to reinforce the image, although there was at least one secret synagogue in London. One leading Jew, Don Antonio Fernandez de Carvajal, know as 'The Great Jew', was denounced in 1645 for not attending Protestant services, but as the leading merchants of London supported him, the case was dropped - money talks. In the favourable conditions following the defeat of Charles Stuart, the Jews tried to legalise their position, to gain the same status as other citizens. Fairfax chose not to pursue the petition they presented to him in 1648 but in 1650 an Amsterdam based Jewish theologian called Menasseh ben Israel wrote a treatise commending England, called 'Spes Israeli', which was translated into English and sold rapidly. By 1651, Cromwell and The Council of State were considering the readmittance of the Jews, for religious and pragmatic reasons.4 Menasseh met Cromwell in October 1655 and was sufficiently impressed by him to investigate whether Huntingdon was the birthplace of the Messiah (Cromwell, not John Major). Following this meeting and some debate in the Council, no official proclamations were made regarding their position, but it was tacitly acknowledged that Jews were no longer to be persecuted, despite the efforts of anti-Semitic writers like Prynne and popular outbursts against the 'devouring stomachs' of the Jews. The Jews were finally legally readmitted in 1664.


Sect founded by, and believing in, the personal inspiration of Lodowick Muggleton (d. 1698) and John Reeve, who appears to have written all their original works. On 2-5th February 1652, God spoke to Reeve (he says) and 'gave him understanding above all men in the world' to be the sole interpreter of the Bible. He then published pamphlets which interpreted the Biblical texts. Reeve held that prayer was ineffective and that God took no notice of believers, as well as believing that the Millennium was near. Muggleton outlived Reeve and re-wrote their 'history' to place himself at the forefront.


1 Incidentally, in 1639, Baptist colonists led by Roger Williams, in Providence, Rhode Island, and John Clarke at Newport, Rhode Island, created the first civil government where the church and state were separate, although they were oppressed in other settlements.

2 Based upon the Jewish Sanhedrin.

3 'To the greater glory of God'.

4 Carvajal imported £100,000 worth of bullion per year and many continental Jews provided useful intelligence to Cromwell.